Even though all the guide books will tell you to avoid renting motorbikes in Vietnam at all costs, Julie and I highly recommend it.
Back in early 2014 after already traveling through the insanely chaotic Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City where motorbikes are as ubiquitous and as unpredictable as ants, when we arrived in Phu Quoc Island off the Southern tip of Vietnam, by comparison, the traffic seemed relatively manageable.
Not going to lie, we were still pretty nervous. Traffic rules were nonexistent and multiple people instructed us that if you crash the bike, just leave it and hopefully the owners won’t come looking for you to pay up. Sounded like a perfectly safe and sane way to spend our last full day in Vietnam.
So after our eleventh fabulous Pho breakfast in a row (Vietnamese don’t eat it for dinner), we told reception at our pretty posh hotel that we wanted to rent motorbikes. The man looked a bit alarmed but in broken English said Ok, he’d call “a guy”.
Ten minutes later two guys showed up with two broken down motorbikes. There was no instruction, no signing of waivers, no checking our licenses. They simply handed us two helmets and gestured to go.
Julie wanted to drive first, but the bike kept stalling which was not an easy task for a first timer trying to find her groove. After the guys saw we couldn’t get this bike to idle, they gave us the other bike. It idled better, but we still struggled.
I was on the back and Julie cautiously turned the throttle and we began weaving down the road like a 4-year old without training wheels.
The guys vaguely motioned to follow them, which we did after seeing the gas gauge was on E. Like nothing we’d ever seen, they poured gasoline from a 1-Liter glass bottle into the bike and then brought us to a table to pay for the rental, which turned into sketch comedy material. We were trying to simply understand how much they were asking us to pay, but they thought we were negotiating them down. We also had no idea how long we were supposed to keep the bike or where to return it. Mmmmmmm, kay.
Since we weren’t having much luck communicating, we just handed over what we thought was a fair price (200,000 dong or roughly $10) and assumed we’d return it to the hotel. The two guys seemed satisfied.
We asked the guys to pilot the bike back up to the main road and point it south toward Sao Beach which we had decided on as our first destination (one less U-turn, thank you). Then the guys held on to the back (a la training wheels visual above) as Julie hit the gas and we pulled away.
Before long we were on a long, narrow red clay road with potholes galore. We checked with our rudimentary map from the hotel and this looked right, so we closed our mouths, weathered the flying red dust and kept on motoring!
Soon we reached an unmarked T in the road, so we made a guess on which way to go and quickly found ourselves in construction. This wasn’t surprising as construction in Vietnam is constant. Many of the homes are only half completed because you don’t pay taxes until the roof is on and it’s deemed finished. The same never-ending construction mindset also prevails for their roads.
Julie was taking it slow navigating the bulldozers and pits that looked like we were in bombed out Beirut, and suddenly the bike stalled.
We pushed ourselves out of traffic, but the bike now refused to start. Not even a sputter as we turned the key and gave it some gas.
Luckily when we looked around without a clue of what to do, we saw we were in front of a rickety shop with a Honda sign out front. I went inside to ask for help, they wheeled it in, sprayed some WD-40 on it, and of course it started right up.
We paid them $1 for their time and I offered to drive next as it looked like there was a lot of construction and traffic to come.
We headed back south, still looking for the beach. We came to a village at the far south end of the island, meaning we had overshot our beach destination by miles. But I was getting confident driving through the village, so we were game to keep going.
After a few more stops asking locals if we were heading the right way, we got confirmation the beach was just up the road. No wonder we missed the turn the first few times, what we were apparently looking for was a tiny two-track path with no signage at all.
After a few minutes carefully maneuvering down the trail, we came upon a tiny sign that said “Sao Beach”.
Holy shit, we made it!
We parked the motorbike, and walked down to the most stunning, scarcely populated white-sand beach we had ever seen.
Right away we ordered two beers, a coconut water to share, and jumped in the ocean. The red clay dust disappeared into the blue sea and we scrubbed our face and bodies with the salt water. It felt amazing, like we had conquered the world getting here.
We lounged on our beach chairs and walked down the nearly private beach, grabbed some lunch, and relaxed as the sun started to eek a bit lower in the sky.
After our amazing/hysterical/dangerous journey to Sao Beach, whatever we did next seemed like gravy. We hopped back on the bike (thank God it started) and headed north to check out a waterfall we had read about next.
After that we drove to Su Muon Pagoda up a mountain trail. The temple was brightly-colored and a bit gauche which was great since photos were my primary reason for stopping.
At this point I was feeling confident on the motorbike, but it was time to call it a day. As we navigated back through the largest town on the island called Duong Duong (not making that up), we had one last dramatic scare as a truck pulled out in front of us causing me to lock up the brakes, drag my feet, and pray we stopped before our bike careened into him.
Once back at the hotel, we celebrated with mega high fives and threw the keys back to the guy who set us up in the morning. Who cares how they get the bike back, not our problem. Just like it wasn’t their problem if we broke down, got lost or died along the way.
The water in the shower that night ran red from the clay dust and we each used about 4 Q-tips before our ears were mostly clean.
We felt pretty badass from our adventure. Not only did we conquer a stupid motorbike, but two gay women had spent 11 days in a country where neither Communism or customs slowed us down.
Next time, put that in your guide book!